It was one of those cases where I got a chilled feeling when the lady who’d just been referred to me was describing her situation with her husband. I completed a risk assessment form (DASH) which we as outreach workers do for all new referrals. Her score was only medium risk, not supposedly serious enough for her to be referred to the MARAC (Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conference). However, such was my concern, I referred her anyway, we can override counting the ticks in boxes and refer on professional judgment. The risk assessment is heavily weighted on physical violence, but this lady’s husband had never physically assaulted her, that wasn’t his preferred method of abuse. He was a controller, highly intelligent and insidiously controlling. She was monitored everywhere she went, had a tracking device on her car and phone, had her emails and text message checked. She wanted to end the relationship but following a discussion about this, we both agreed it was too dangerous to tell him this. Her exit strategy needed very careful planning. This lady refused to flee to refuge accommodation, but all other possible safeguards were put in place on an emergency basis, and the police notified. I had a real concern that the husband would either kill her or himself. Tragically, he hanged himself about a week later.
Domestic violence, the physical manifestation of domestic abuse has tended to be considered the biggest risk factor for very serious assault or murder. More recent research has tended to indicate that it’s actually the controlling coercive abusers who pose the greatest risk of murdering their partners. It’s also the case that women considered high-risk are often on the radar of lots of professional and are better supported, however women from the medium to low risk groups are the ones more likely to be murdered. It would seem that we’ve got the risk assessments all wrong!
A recent published study of 358 domestic homicide reviews by Dr Jane Monckton-Smith, of Gloucestershire University, showed that control was seen in 92% of domestic killings, obsession in 94%, and isolation from family and friends in 78%. These types of behaviour can lead to a victim having no life of their own, and no privacy from their abuser, who will frequently monitor them day and night. Coercive and controlling behaviour has been a criminal offence in this country since the Serious Crime Act 2015 came into force. However there have been few successful prosecutions, it is an offence that is very difficult to prove since it often encompasses countless small acts. It is also an offence that seems poorly understood by the Crown Prosecution Service, lawyers, magistrates and judges. Broken jaws and black eyes are a lot more straight forward for the courts.
A research study using data from Thames Valley Police looked at all cases of serious domestic assault and murder between 2007 and 2009 to establish how accurate the risk assessments had been in predicting the serious harm. In 55% of cases, there was no prior recorded contact with the police. In only five out of 118 cases, the risk was assessed as high-risk prior to the serious assault or murder. The study found that those who committed serious domestic assault and murder offended less than the pool of all violent offenders. This is contrary to previous beliefs about escalating violence. The study also found that male offenders who committed serious domestic assaults were more than three times as likely to be suicidal than other violent offenders. Again, using risk assessments where physical violence scores highly would seem to be unhelpful.
In her research, Dr Monckton Smith identified that in almost all the domestic homicides that she researched, an eight-step pattern could be identified leading up to the killing. The eight steps were identified as –
1. A pre-relationship history of stalking or abuse by the perpetrator
2. The romance developing quickly into a serious relationship
3. The relationship becoming dominated by coercive control
4. A trigger to threaten the perpetrator’s control – for example, the relationship ends or the perpetrator gets into financial difficulty
5. Escalation – an increase in the intensity or frequency of the partner’s control tactics such as by stalking or threatening suicide
6. The perpetrator has a change in thinking – choosing to move on, either through revenge or by homicide
7. Planning – the perpetrator might buy weapons or seek opportunities to get the victim alone
8. Homicide – the perpetrator kills his or her partner, and possibly hurts others such as the victim’s children
Despite the improved efforts of the police and other professionals, the proliferation of domestic abuse support organisations, a better partnership response and a willingness to challenge the problem openly, attempts to reduce domestic homicides are not working, the number of women killed by men has remained steady for the last decade. Rather than making assumptions and doing what we have always done, professional working with domestic abuse should perhaps be using this research-based knowledge to improve practices and procedures. Rather than considering numerous assaults as indicative of high likelihood of murder, we should be questioning our survivors in terms of the eight steps, being more concerned about coercive control, and re-writing our outdated risk assessments.
At Broxtowe Women’s project we understand coercive control and know how to support women suffering this type of abuse. We will never minimise the experience of women who are not physically injured by their partner. Domestic abuse takes many forms and we are experienced in supporting all female survivors of abuse.
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